Jun. 8, 2004
After an Absence
Poem: "After an Absence," by Linda Pastan, from The Imperfect Paradise. © W.W. Norton and Co. Reprinted with permission.
After an Absence
After an absence that was no one's fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.
Perhaps we should have stayed
tied like mountain climbers
by the safe cord of the phone,
its dial our own small prayer wheel,
our voices less ghostly across the miles,
less awkward than they are now.
I had forgotten the grey in your curls,
that splash of winter over your face,
remembering the younger man
you used to be.
And I feel myself turn old and ordinary,
having to think again of food for supper,
the animals to be tended, the whole riptide
of daily life hidden but perilous
pulling both of us under so fast.
I have dreamed of our bed
as if it were a shore where we would be washed up,
not this striped mattress
we must cover with sheets. I had forgotten
all the old business between us,
like mail unanswered so long that silence
becomes eloquent, a message of its own.
I had even forgotten how married love
is a territory more mysterious
the more it is explored, like one of those terrains
you read about, a garden in the desert
where you stoop to drink, never knowing
if your mouth will fill with water or sand.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1867 that Mark Twain set off on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, a trip that gave him the material for his first major book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). He traveled with a large group of American tourists, on a steam-driven side-wheeler called the Quaker City. It was the first transatlantic cruise on a steamship.
Twain was just starting out as a writer at the time. He was living in New York, working as the travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper the Alta California. He convinced the editors to pay for his cruise, and in exchange he would write 50 letters from the cruise ship to be published in the paper. He had just started using the name Mark Twain a few years ago, and he was still trying to build his reputation. His first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867), hadn't sold very well, and he thought a travel book would be a good way to make a name for himself.
Travel narratives were growing very popular at the time, but Twain didn't want to write a conventional travel book. He hated how travel books made it seem like every church and every museum was worth visiting. He wanted to write a book about what it was actually like to travel—with all of the inconveniences and disappointments and fatigue. He said the purpose of the book was "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him."
In Florence, he wrote, "It is popular to admire the Arno. It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade."
When Twain got back from the cruise, his publisher gave him six months to write a 600-page book, even though he still had to make a living by writing newspaper articles. He wrote most of it in Washington, D.C., in a tiny room full of dirty clothes, cigar ashes and manuscript pages. He used a lot of the material from the letters he wrote during the trip, but he made several changes to make it more appealing to an eastern audience. He took out some of the cruder jokes and the racier passages, such as a description of nude bathers at Odessa. He thought easterners were more likely to be offended than westerners, and he wanted to reach as large an audience as possible. And he didn't use as much slang, because most easterners would have no idea what it meant. He wrote about 200,000 words in two months, or about 3,500 words per day, and finished just before his publisher's deadline. The Innocents Abroad sold more than 125,000 copies in ten years, and it established Twain's reputation.
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